S. M. Stirling
If you’re not, as I am, a native Californian, you may skip the next paragraph. It probably won’t mean much to you.
I have often wondered what it would be like to visit pre-Columbian California. To see all those animals that have gone extinct since the arrival of Europeans, including the many native tribes. It would be breathtaking to look upon the Yosemite Valley, Mount McKinley, Mount Shasta, the San Francisco Bay, Death Valley, the Mojave Desert, the redwood forests, and the wild Pacific coast before modern technology put its footprint there. Being able to time-travel back to these days has been the core of many a personal fantasy.
I won’t begrudge living in modern California. If it weren’t for modern technology, much of it invented here, I wouldn’t be alive today. But the fantasy remains.
This is sort of what S. M. Stirling does in his book, Conquistador. In the very first chapter, he opens a gate to a parallel universe, a staple in modern SF for lo these many years, where Europeans never made it to the Americas. A young veteran, just back from the war in the Pacific, invites his friends on an adventure through this gate, and by 2009, where the bulk of the story takes place, things have progressed quite a bit.
It dawns on you during the early parts of the book, that the story doesn’t start off in our universe, either, but one that is very similar.
The vet, John Rolfe, decides that secrecy is the best policy, and manages to hide his universe for over 60 years. But the problems with secrets is that they become increasingly difficult to keep. Along comes Tom Christiansen, a game warden for the California Department of Fish and Game, who literally stumbles across this secret.
After this, the book takes on the familiar tone that Stirling set in his other books. Huge fighting Swedes, beautiful plucky women, lots of battle scenes, descriptions of weaponry, and an array of stereotyped support cast.
We follow Christiansen through a travelogue of this Alternate California, which isn’t entirely pre-Columbian anymore since Rolfe’s arrival, but it’s close enough. Those of you who are purists when it comes to native species ecologies will be aghast to learn that Rolfe has introduced a number of large game animals from Africa and Asia to the California landscape, which certainly adds to the exotic nature of the narrative. You’ll also cringe at the part where we learn that the native human population of North America is about 10% of what it was before Rolfe, due to that ol’ friend, disease. Stirling is quick to point out, however, that Rolfe was not any sort of epidemiologist, and had no intention of killing anybody through germ warfare.
Note to self: Upon discovering alternate universes, hire a group of ecologists and epidemiologists.
If you liked other Stirling books, you’ll like this one. And vice versa.